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wincing from the very memory of a crisis.

"Look here!" exclaimed Sinclair. His contempt rang in his voice. "They
ain't any danger now. Turn around here and buck up. Keep your chin high
and look a man in the face, will you?"

Slowly the arm descended. He found himself looking into a white and
tortured face. His respect for the schoolteacher rose somewhat. The
very fact that the little man could endure such pain in silence, no
matter what that pain might be, was something to his credit.

"Now come out with it, Gaspar. You double-crossed this Cartwright, eh?"

"Yes," whispered Jig.

"Will you tell me? Not that I make a business of prying into the
affairs of other gents, but I figure I might be able to help you
straighten things out with this Cartwright."

He made a wry face and then rubbed the side of his head where a lump
was slowly growing.

"Of all the gents that I ever seen," said Sinclair softly, "I ain't
never seen none that made me want to tangle with 'em so powerful bad.
And of all the poisoned fatheads, all the mean, sneakin'
advantage-takin' skunks that ever I run up again', this gent Cartwright
is the worst. If his hide was worth a million an inch, I would have it.
If he was to pay me a hundred thousand a day, I wouldn't be his pal for
a minute." He paused. "Them, taking 'em by and large, is my sentiments
about this here Cartwright. So open up and tell me what you done to

To his very real surprise the schoolteacher shook his head. "I can't do

"H'm," said Sinclair, cut to the quick. "Can't you trust me with it,

"Ah," murmured Gaspar, "of all the men in the world, you're the one I'd
tell it to most easily. But I can't - I can't."

"I don't care whether you tell me or not. Whatever you done, it must
have been plumb bad if you can't even tell it to a gent that likes
Cartwright like he likes poison."

"It was bad," said Jig slowly. "It was very bad - it was a sin. Until I
die I can never repay him for what I have done."

Sinclair recovered some of his good nature at this outburst of

"I'll be hanged if I believe it," he declared bluntly. "Not a word of
it! When you come right down to the point you'll find out that you
ain't been half so bad as you think. The way I figure you is this, Jig.
You ain't so bad, except that you ain't got no nerve. Was it a matter
of losing your nerve that made Cartwright mad at you?"

"Yes. It was altogether that."

Sinclair sighed. "Too bad! I don't blame you for not wanting to talk
about it. They's a flaw in everything, Jig, and this is yours. If I was
to be around you much, d'you know what I'd do?"


"I'd try to plumb forget about this flaw of yours: That's a fact. But
as far as Cartwright goes, to blazes with him! And that's where he's
apt to wind up pronto if he's as good as his word and comes after me
with a gun. In the meantime you grab your hoss, kid, and slide back
into Sour Creek and show the boys this here confession I've written.
You can add one thing. I didn't put it in because I knowed they
wouldn't believe me. I killed Quade fair and square. I give him the
first move for his gun, and then I beat him to the draw and killed him
on an even break. That's the straight of it. I know they won't believe
it. Matter of fact I'm saying it for you, Jig, more'n I am for them!"

It was an amazing thing to see the sudden light that flooded the face
of the schoolteacher.

"And I do believe you, Sinclair," he said. "With all my heart I believe
you and know you couldn't have taken an unfair advantage!"

"H'm," muttered Riley. "It ain't bad to hear you say that. And now trot
along, son."

Cold Feet made no move to obey.

"Not that I wouldn't like to have you along, but where I got to go,
you'd be a weight around my neck. Besides, your game is to show the
folks down yonder that you ain't a murderer, and that paper I've give
you will prove it. We'll drift together along the trail part way, and
down yonder I turn up for the tall timber."

To all this Jig returned no answer, but in a peculiarly lifeless manner
went to his horse and climbed in his awkward way into the saddle. They
went down the trail slowly.

"Because," explained the cowpuncher, "if I save my hoss's wind I may be
saving my own life."

Where the trail bent like an elbow and shot sheer down for the plain
and Sour Creek, Riley Sinclair pointed his horse's nose up to the
taller mountains, but Jig sat his horse in melancholy silence and
looked mournfully up at his companion.

"So long," said Sinclair cheerily. "And when you get down yonder, it'll
happen most likely that pretty soon you'll hear a lot of hard things
about Riley Sinclair."

"If I do - if I hear a syllable against you," cried the schoolteacher
with a flare of color, "I'll - I'll drive the words back into their

He shook with his emotion; Riley Sinclair shook with controlled

"Would you do all of that, partner? Well, I believe you'd try. What I
mean to say is this: No matter what they say, you can lay to it that
Sinclair has tried to play square and clean according to his own
lights, which ain't always the best in the world. So long!"

There was no answer. He found himself looking down into the quivering
face of the schoolteacher.

"Why, kid, you look all busted up!"

"Riley," gasped Jig very faintly, "I can't go!"

"And why not?"

"Because I can't meet Jude."

"Cartwright, eh? But you got to, sooner or later."

"I'll die first."

"Would your nerve hold you up through that?"

"So easily," said Jig. There was such a simple gravity and despair in
his expression that Sinclair believed it. He grunted and stared hard.

"This Cartwright gent is worse'n death to you?"

"A thousand, thousand times!"

"How come?"

"I can't tell you."

"I kind of wish," said Sinclair thoughtfully, "that I'd kept my grip a
mite longer."

"No, no!"

"You don't wish him dead?"

Jig shuddered.

"You plumb beat me, partner. And now you want to come along with me?"
Sinclair grinned. "An outlaw's life ain't what it's cracked up to be,
son. You'd last about a day doing what I have to do."

"You'll find," said the schoolteacher eagerly, "that I can stand it
amazingly well. I'll - I'll be far, far stronger than you expect!"

"Somehow I kind of believe it. But it's for your own fool sake, son,
that I don't want you along."

"Let me try," pleaded Jig eagerly.

The other shook his head and seemed to change his mind in the very
midst of the gesture.

"Why not?" he asked himself. "You'll get enough of it inside of a day.
And then you'll find out that they's some things about as bad as
death - or Cartwright. Come on, kid!"


It was a weary ride that brought them to the end of that day and to a
camping place. It seemed to Jig that the world was made up of nothing
but the ups and downs of that mountain trail. Now, as the sun went
down, they came out on a flat shoulder of the mountain. Far below them
lay Sour Creek, long lost in the shadow of premature night which filled
the valley.

"Here we are, fixed up as comfortable as can be," said Sinclair
cheerily. "There's water, and there's wood aplenty. What could a gent
ask for more? And here's my country!"

For a moment his expression softened as he looked over the black peaks
stepping away to the north. Now he pointed out a grove of trees, and on
the other side of the little plateau was heard the murmur of a feeble

Riley swung down easily from the saddle, but when Jig dismounted his
knees buckled with weariness, and he slipped down on a rock. He was
unheeded for a moment by the cowpuncher, who was removing from his
saddle the quarters of a deer which he had shot at the foot of the
mountain. When this task was ended, a stern voice brought Jig to his

"What's all this? How come? Going to let that hoss stand there all
night with his saddle on? Hurry up!"

"All right," replied the schoolteacher, but his voice quaked with
weariness, and the cinch knot, drawn taut by the powerful hand of Jerry
Bent, refused to loosen. He struggled with it until his fingers ached,
and his panicky breath came in gasps of nervous excitement.

Presently he was aware of the tall, dark form of Sinclair behind him,
his saddle slung across his arm.

"By guns," muttered Sinclair, "it ain't possible! Not enough muscle to
untie a knot? It's a good thing that your father can't see the sort of
a son that he turned out. Lemme at that!"

Under his strong fingers the knot gave by magic.

"Now yank that saddle off and put it yonder with mine."

Jig pulled back the saddle, but when the full weight jerked down on him
he staggered, and he began to drag the heavy load.

"Hey," cut in the voice of the tyrant, "want to spoil that saddle, kid?
Lift it, can't you?"

Gaspar obeyed with a start and, having placed it in the required
position, turned and waited guiltily.

"Time you was learning something about camping out," declared the
cowpuncher, "and I'll teach you. Take this ax and gimme some wood,

He handed over a short ax, heavy-headed and small of haft.

"That bush yonder! That's dead, or dead enough for us."

Plainly Jig was in awe of that ax. He carried it well out from his
side, as if he feared the least touch against his leg might mean a cut.
Of all this, Riley Sinclair was aware with a gradually darkening
expression. He had been partly won to Jig that day, but his better
opinion of the schoolteacher was being fast undermined.

With a gloomy eye he watched John Gaspar drop on his knees at the base
of the designated shrub and raise the ax slowly - in both hands! Not
only that, but the head remained poised, hung over the schoolteacher's
shoulder. When the blow fell, instead of striking solidly on the trunk
of the bush, it crashed futilely through a branch. Riley Sinclair drew
closer to watch. It was excusable, perhaps, for a man to be unable to
ride or to shoot or to face other men. But it was inconceivable that
any living creature should be so clumsy with a common ax.

To his consummate disgust the work of Jig became worse and worse. No
two blows fell on the same spot. The trunk of the little tree became
bruised, but even when the edge of the ax did not strike on a branch,
at most it merely sliced into the outer surface of the wood and left
the heart untouched. It was a process of gnawing, not of chopping. To
crown the terrible exhibition, Jig now rested from his labors and
examined the palms of his hands, which had become a bright red.

"Gimme the ax," said Sinclair shortly. He dared not trust himself to
more speech and, snatching it from the hands of Cold Feet, buried the
blade into the very heart of the trunk. Another blow, driven home with
equal power and precision on the opposite side, made the tree shudder
to its top, and the third blow sent it swishing to the earth.

This brought a short cry of admiration and wonder from the
schoolteacher, for which Sinclair rewarded him with one glance of
contempt. With sweeping strokes he cleared away the half-dead branches.
Presently the trunk was naked. On it Riley now concentrated his attack,
making the short ax whistle over his shoulders. The trunk of the shrub
was divided into handy portions as if by magic.

Still John Gaspar stood by, gaping, apparently finding nothing to do.
And this with a camp barely started!

It was easier to do oneself, however, than to give directions to such
stupidity. Sinclair swept up an armful of wood and strode off to the
spot he had selected for the campfire, near the place where the spring
water ran into a small pool. A couple of big rocks thrown in place
furnished a windbreak. Between them he heaped dead twigs, and in a
moment the flame was leaping.

As soon as the fire was lighted they became aware that the night was
well nigh upon them. Hitherto the day had seemed some distance from its
final end, for there was still color in the sky, and the tops of the
western mountains were still bright. But with the presence of fire
brightness, the rest of the world became dim. The western peaks were
ghostly; the sky faded to the ashes of its former splendor; and Jig
found himself looking down upon thick night in the lower valleys. He
saw the eyes of the horses glistening, as they raised their heads to
watch. The gaunt form of Sinclair seemed enormous. Stooping about the
fire, enormous shadows drifted above and behind him. Sometimes the
light flushed over his lean face and glinted in his eyes. Again his
head was lost in shadow, and perhaps only the active, reaching hands
were illuminated brightly.

He prepared the deer meat with incomprehensible swiftness, at the same
time arranging the fire so that it rapidly burned down to a firm,
strong, level bed of coals, and by the time the bed of coals were
ready, the meat was prepared in thick steaks to broil over it.

In a little time the rich brown of the cooking venison streaked across
to Jig. He had kept at a distance up to this time, realizing that he
was in disgrace. Now he drifted near. He was rewarded by an amiable
grin from Riley Sinclair, whose ugly humor seemed to have vanished at
the odor of the broiling meat.

"Watch this meat cook, kid, will you? There's something you can do that
don't take no muscle and don't take no knowledge. All you got to do is
to keep listening with your _nose_, and if you smell it burning, yank
her off. Understand? And don't let the fire blaze. She's apt to flare
up at the corners, you see? And these here twigs is apt to burn
through - these ones that keep the meat off'n the coals. Watch them,
too. And that's all you got to do. Can you manage all them things at

Jig nodded gravely, as though he failed to see the contempt.

"I seen a fine patch of grass down the hill a bit. I'm going to take
the hosses down there and hobble 'em out." Whistling, Sinclair strode
off down the hill, leading the horses after him.

The schoolteacher watched him go, and when the forms had vanished, and
only the echo of the whistling blew back, he looked up. The last life
was gone from the sunset. The last time he glanced up, there had been
only a few dim stars; now they had come down in multitudes, great
yellow planets and whole rifts of steel-blue stars.

He took from his pocket the old envelope which Sinclair had given him,
examined the scribbled confession, chuckling at the crude labor with
which the writing had been drawn out, and then deliberately stuffed the
paper into a corner of the fire. It flamed up, singeing the cooking
meat, but John Gaspar paid no heed. He was staring off down the hill to
make sure that Sinclair should not return in time to see that little
act of destruction. An act of self-destruction, too, it well might turn
out to be.

As for Sinclair, having found his pastureland, where the grass grew
thick and tall, he was in no hurry to return to his clumsy companion.
He listened for a time to the sound of the horses, ripping away the
grass close to the ground, and to the grating as they chewed. Then he
turned his attention to the mountains. His spirit was easier in this
place. He breathed more easily. There was a sense of freedom at once
and companionship. He lingered so long, indeed, that he suddenly became
aware that time had slipped away from him, and that the venison must be
long since done. At that he hurried back up the slope.

He was hungry, ravenously hungry, but the first thing that greeted him
was the scent of burning meat. It stopped him short, and his hands
gripped involuntarily. In that first burst of passion he wanted
literally to wring the neck of the schoolteacher. He strode closer. It
was as he thought. The twigs had burned away from beneath the steak and
allowed it to drop into the cinders, and beside the dying fire, barely
illuminated by it, sat Jig, sound asleep, with his head resting on his

For a moment Sinclair had to fight with himself for control. All his
murderous evil temper had flared up into his brain and set his teeth
gritting. At length he could trust himself enough to reach down and set
his heavy grip on the shoulder of the sleeper.

Even in sleep Jig must have been pursued by a burdened consciousness of
guilt. Now he jerked up his head and stammered up to the shadowy face
of Sinclair.

"I - I don't know - all at once it happened. You see the fire - "

But the telltale odor of the charring meat struck his nostrils, and his
speech died away. He was panting with fear of consequences. Now a new
turn came to the fear of Cold Feet. It seemed that Riley Sinclair's
hand had frozen at the touch of the soft flesh of Jig's shoulder. He
remained for a long moment without stirring. When his hand moved it was
to take Jig under the chin with marvelous firmness and gentleness at
once and lift the face of the schoolteacher. He seemed to find much to
read there, much to study and know. Whatever it was, it set Jig
trembling until suddenly he shrank away, cowering against the rock

"You don't think - "

But the voice of Sinclair broke in with a note in it that Jig had never
heard before.

"Guns and glory - a woman!"

It came over him with a rush, that revelation which explained so many
things - everything in fact; all that strange cowardice, and all that
stranger grace; that unmanly shrinking, that more than manly contempt
for death. Now the firelight was too feeble to show more than one
thing - the haunted eyes of the girl, as she cowered away from him.

He saw her hand drop from her breast to her holster and close around
the butt of her revolver.

Sinclair grew cold and sick. After all, what reason had she to trust
him? He drew back and began to walk up and down with long, slow
strides. The girl followed him and saw his gaunt figure brush across
the stars; she saw the wind furl and unfurl the wide brim of his hat,
and she heard the faint stir and clink of his spurs at every step.

There was a tumult in the brain of the cowpuncher. The stars and the
sky and the mountains and wind went out. They were nothing in the
electric presence of this new Jig. His mind flashed back to one
picture - Cold Feet with her hands tied behind her back, praying under
the cottonwood.

Shame turned the cowpuncher hot and then cold. He allowed his mind to
drift back over his thousand insults, his brutal language, his cursing,
his mockery, his open contempt. There was a tingle in his ears, and a
chill running up and down his spine.

After all that brutality, what mysterious sense had told her to trust
to him rather than to Sour Creek and its men?

Other mysteries flocked into his mind. Why had she come to the very
verge of death, with the rope around her neck rather than reveal her
identity, knowing, as she must know, that in the mountain desert men
feel some touch of holiness in every woman?

He remembered Cartwright, tall, handsome, and narrow of eye, and the
fear of the girl. Suddenly he wished with all his soul that he had
fought with guns that day, and not with fists.


At length the continued silence of the girl made him turn. Perhaps she
had slipped away. His heart was chilled at the thought; turning, he
sighed with relief to find her still there.

Without a word he went back and rekindled the fire, placed new venison
steaks over it, and broiled them with silent care. Not a sound from
Jig, not a sound from the cowpuncher, while the meat hissed, blackened,
and at length was done to a turn. He laid portions of it on broad,
white, clean chips which he had already prepared, and served her. Still
in silence she ate. Shame held Sinclair. He dared not look at her, and
he was glad when the fire lost some of its brightness.

Now and then he looked with wonder across the mountains. All his life
they had been faces to him, and the wind had been a voice. Now all this
was nothing but dead stuff. There was no purpose in the march of the
mountains except that they led to the place where Jig sat.

He twisted together a cup of bark and brought her water from the
spring. She thanked him with words that he did not hear, he was so
intent in watching her face, as the firelight played on it. Now that he
held the clue, everything was as plain as day. New light played on the

Turning away, he put new fuel on the fire, and when he looked to her
again, she had unbelted the revolver and was putting it away, as if she
realized that this would not help her if she were in danger.

When at length she spoke it was the same voice, and yet how new! The
quality in it made Sinclair sit a little straighter.

"You have a right to know everything that I can tell you. Do you wish
to hear?"

For another moment he smoked in solemn silence. He found that he was
wishing for the story not so much because of its strangeness, but
because he wanted that voice to run on indefinitely. Yet he weighed the
question pro and con.

"Here's the point, Jig," he said at last. "I got a good deal to make up
to you. In the first place I pretty near let you get strung up for a
killing I done myself. Then I been treating you pretty hard, take it
all in all. You got a story, and I don't deny that I'd like to hear it;
but it don't seem a story that you're fond of telling, and I ain't got
no right to ask for it. All I ask to know is one thing: When you stood
there under that cotton wood tree, with a rope around your neck, did
you know that all you had to do was to tell us that you was a woman to
get off free?"

"Of course."

"And you'd sooner have hung than tell us?"


Sinclair sighed. "Maybe I've said this before, but I got to say it
ag'in: Jig, you plumb beat me!" He brushed his hand across his
forehead. "S'pose it'd been done! S'pose I had let 'em go ahead and
string you up! They'd have been a terrible bad time ahead for them
seven men. We'd all have been grabbed and lynched. A woman!"

He put the word off by itself. Then he was surprised to hear her
laughing softly. Now that he knew, it was all woman, that voice.

"It wasn't really courage, Riley. After you'd said half a dozen words I
knew you were square, and that you knew I was innocent. So I didn't
worry very much - except just after you'd sentenced me to hang!"

"Don't go back to that! I sure been a plumb fool. But why would you
have gone ahead and let that hanging happen?"

"Because I had rather die than be known, except to you."

"You leave me out."

"I'd trust you to the end of everything, Riley."

"I b'lieve you would, Jig - I honest believe you would! Heaven knows


"That ain't a reason."

"A very good woman's reason. For one thing you've let me come along
when you know that I'm a weight, and you're in danger. But you don't
know what it means if I go back. You can't know. I know it's wrong and
cowardly for me to stay and imperil you, but I _am_ a coward, and I'm
afraid to go back!"

"Hush up," murmured Sinclair. "Hush up, girl. Is they anybody asking
you to go back? But you don't really figure on hanging out here with me
in the mountains, me having most of the gents in these parts out
looking for my scalp?"

"If you think I won't be such an encumbrance that I'll greatly endanger
you, Riley."

"H'm," muttered Sinclair. "I'll take that chance, but they's another


"It ain't exactly nacheral and reasonable for a girl to go around in
the mountains with a man."

She fired up at that, sitting straight, with the fire flaring suddenly
in her face through the change of position.

"I've told you that I trust you, Riley. What do I care about the
opinion of the world? Haven't they hounded me? Oh, I despise them!"

"H'm," said the cowpuncher again.

He was, indeed, so abashed by this outbreak that he merely stole a
glance at her face and then studied the fire again.

"Does this gent Cartwright tie up with your story?"

All the fire left her. "Yes," she whispered.

He felt that she was searching his face, as if suddenly in doubt of

"Will you let me tell you - everything?"

"Shoot ahead."

"Some parts will be hard to believe."

"Lady, they won't be nothing as hard to believe as what I've seen you
do with my own eyes."

Then she began to tell her story, and she found a vast comfort in
seeing the ugly, stern face of Sinclair lighted by the burning end of
his cigarette. He never looked at her, but always fixed his stare on
the sea of blackness which was the lower valley.

"All the trouble began with a theory. My father felt that the thing for
a girl was to be educated in the East and marry in the West. He was
full of maxims, you see. 'They turn out knowledge in cities; they turn

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Online LibraryMax BrandThe Rangeland Avenger → online text (page 8 of 18)